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Trump to ‘re-energize’ Phl-US partnership

The Philippine Star
Trump to âre-energizeâ Phl-US partnership

President Duterte and US President Donald Trump share a light moment at the Asean 50th anniversary gala dinner last night.

MANILA, Philippines — The United States seeks to re-energize its relationship with the Philippines during President Donald Trump’s visit here for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia summits this week even as it plans to discuss counterterrorism, the war on drugs and the South China Sea issue.

As Trump arrived here yesterday, he tweeted a photo of Air Force One with the caption: “Just landed in the Philippines after a great day of meetings and events in Hanoi, Vietnam!” Airport officials said he arrived at 5:45 p.m. at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

Trump and President Duterte are set to hold a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the summits. They first met in Da Nang, Vietnam where the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit was held last week.

A senior White House official said there will be a lot of discussion about renewal of the US-Philippines “alliance and reenergizing that alliance through a joint statement” after the meeting between Trump and Duterte.

The US official said counterterrorism efforts will also be discussed and “President Trump is going to be congratulating President Duterte on the recent liberation of Marawi City in Mindanao from the ISIS-linked” Maute terror group.

Asked about the war on drugs, the official said “our side is going to be talking about the drug war and ways in which that war could be prosecuted that conform with Philippine law and international norms for human rights.”

As regards the South China Sea, the official said there has been a “very clear” and “consistent message” from Trump on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

“And he will come through loud and clear,” the official said, adding the US president “will be talking specifically about the importance of navigation and expressing concern about the militarization of features in the South China Sea.”

The official, however, did not specifically mention China, which is being criticized for massive reclamation and military buildup in the area.

The official said the Philippines and the US are working on a joint statement to be issued after the two leaders meet.

“The President (Trump) is going to reaffirm his personal commitment to promoting closer ties with countries in the region and advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific… I think you’ll see a number of things that come out of the two summits, as well, in the way of cooperation and initiatives between the United States and ASEAN and some of the individual member states,” the official said.

The official said Trump also embarked on a long trip to Asia to

strengthen international resolve to denuclearize North Korea, promote a free and open Indo-Pacific region and advance American prosperity.

Trump offers to mediate

Trump offered yesterday to mediate in the South China Sea disputes and his Chinese counterpart played down concerns over Beijing’s military buildup and the prospects of war in the contested waters, the Associated Press reported.

Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke separately about the territorial rifts ahead of the ASEAN, East Asia summits and related meetings here with the US, China and other global players where the disputes are expected to get the spotlight, along with North Korea’s nuclear threat and terrorism.

“I’m a very good mediator and arbitrator,” Trump said during a news conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang in Hanoi before flying here.

Trump’s offer faces major obstacles. For one, China has steadfastly opposed what it calls US meddling in the disputes and has balked at the US Navy’s incursions into what Beijing considers its territorial waters in the South China Sea.

Washington is not among the claimants to the waterway, among the busiest in the world, but it has declared it has a national interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight and the peaceful resolution of disputes.

Allies back an active American military presence in the disputed waters to serve as a counterweight to China’s increasingly assertive actions, including the construction of seven man-made islands equipped with military installations.

In a news conference after flying back here after midnight yesterday, Duterte said Xi assured him of China’s peaceful intentions in the strategic waterway, where Beijing, the Philippines, Vietnam and three other governments have overlapping claims. The two leaders met on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Da Nang.

The Chinese leader, however, would not back down on Beijing’s territorial claim, Duterte said and justified his decision not to immediately demand Chinese compliance with a ruling by a United Nations-linked tribunal that invalidated China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea on historical grounds.

China has dismissed that ruling as a “sham” and did not participate in the arbitration case that the Philippines filed during the time of Duterte’s predecessor.

Duterte took steps to thaw frosty relations with China after he won the presidency last year.

Avoid fist bump

Phelim Kine, Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director, told Agence France Presse Trump and other world leaders should not copy their controversial host’s signature fist salute as this could land them in hot water.

Eyes will be on whether Trump does the fist pump, having told Duterte in April he was doing a “great job” in his drug war.

Duterte seemed confident he had Trump’s backing for his deadly war on drugs.

“He (Trump) said something about: ‘You know, you handle it very well,’” he told reporters upon his arrival from Vietnam.

Duterte has adopted a clenched fist, often stuck out in front of his chest or sometimes at eye level, as his trademark gesture.

Duterte often seeks to have visitors pose for photos with him doing the salute, with Chinese internet tycoon Jack Ma and Hollywood actor Steven Seagal among those pictured doing so.

But critics warn the gesture has come to represent the brutalities of Duterte’s drug war, which has claimed thousands of lives.

They also say it has uncomfortable similarities with Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s salute.

“Foreign leaders should recognize that the fist... symbolizes a purposeful attack by Duterte on rule of law that has inflicted a human rights calamity on thousands of Filipinos,” Kine said.

“(They) should deny the architect of this human rights calamity the international recognition he undeservedly craves.”

Australia’s spy chief, Nick Warner, was criticized when he returned home from Manila in August to find the Philippine government had released photos of him clenching his fist with Duterte.

“Completely inappropriate photo for the head of one our most important intelligent (sic) services to be in,” federal opposition member of parliament Anthony Byrne said in a Twitter post.

With the photos becoming a major news item in Australia, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was forced to publicly defend Warner. Bishop had previously criticized the drug war.

Duterte might also expect support from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who struck the pose when the pair met in Tokyo last year.

A photo posted by Duterte’s aide on Facebook showed the two men smiling along with their officials, who also raised their fists against the backdrop of Japanese and Philippine flags.

Abe, whom Duterte has called a “true friend,” has not criticized the drug war.

Human rights group Karapatan said a meeting between Duterte and Trump on human rights will be “one big sick joke.”

Karapatan secretary-general Cristina Palabay said it was hypocritical for the two to even discuss the topic given their tracklist of human rights violations.

“On the grounds of what both Duterte and Trump (have) done and (are) continuously doing, it is not that they do not understand the concept of human and people’s rights, it is that they just do not care,” Palabay said in a statement.

The group said the two presidents have a “distorted notion of people’s rights” and will come up empty if they do discuss human rights.

“We expect Trump to talk about human rights with such a record? This is a different level of shamelessness, hypocrisy and pretense,” Palabay said.

Karapatan alleged that the Trump administration has dropped 32,801 bombs in at least seven countries in Asia and the Middle East this year alone.

It also reported that there have been 12 incidents of aerial bombings in the Philippines, which has contributed to hundreds of thousands of forced evacuations, mainly in the war-stricken Marawi.   – Aurea Calica. AP, AFP, Romina Cabrera

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